Monday, 31 December 2018

Greek Democracy Was Aided by the Development of Science

The Ionian Scientists and the Beginning of Scientific Philosophy

Science began in Asia Minor. This included the islands and coastal region of what is now part of Turkey. This area first saw an influx of peoples from Asia; then, in the 7th Century BC, a large number of Greeks moved from the mainland to this region, now known as Ionia. This new society of mixed Greeks and “barbarians” settled the islands, the coastline territories, and created ten small cities which formed a loose confederation.

Ionia was famous for the development of construction, metal work, new tools and processes, and scientific medicine. This innovation was possible as the dominant imperial political forces of Egypt and Mesopotamia had withdrawn, taking with them their hierarchical political systems and centralized state religion.

The Philosophers

Thales – 624 – 546 BC lived in Miletis and is seen as the first Greek philosopher, a mathematician, astronomer, and naturalist. He predicted the solar eclipse of May 28, 585 BC. A materialist, he proposed that water was the source of all life in the universe.

Anaximander-- 610 – 546 BC lived in Miletus. A colleague of Thales, he searched for an explanation of the origin of the universe, asserted that there were laws that determined the real world, and they were not due to gods. He wrote on astronomy, geometry and geography.

Anaximenes – 585 – 528 BC The third celebrated scientist also lived in Miletis. A naturalist, he tried to discern the origin of the Earth and the universe. He rejected the view of the idealists, that it was due to the gods or a supreme being.

Heraclitus – 504-- 480 BC Born at Ephesus, he is not normally seen as a member of the Ionic philosophers. But he was a materialist, who argued that the world and universe were not created by a god but had always existed. He is best known for insisting that change is a constant reality, probably because of the unity of opposites. The universe moves in one direction, but humans see little change.

Anaxagoras – 500 – 428 BC Born at Clazomenae, he is noted for his astronomy. He moved to Athens where he lived for thirty years. A naturalist and materialist philosopher, he argued that the sun was composed of red hot minerals. In 467 BC a large meteorite broke off the sun, was widely seen, and landed in Trace. When it cooled people found it was hard rock similar to that found on Earth. He also insisted that the Milky Way was nothing more than a collection of many stars.
In Athens, he was a good friend of Pericles. In 450 he was charged by a high court for impiety. He was convicted and ostracised – forced to go into exile.

Democritus --460 – 370 BC Born at Abdera, Thrace. Taught by Leucippus he supported the atomic theory identified with the Greek materialist philosophers. He conducted many experiments with nature. He believed that most humans did not have the capacity to understand materialist philosophy; they were more easily impressed by prominent figures who advocated for religious ideology.

Epicurus: The Most Important Materialist Philosopher

Epicurus was born at Samos in Ionia in 341 BC. He studied philosophy and at age 30 moved with his followers to Athens. He established his school, known as The Garden. But it stood in contrast to the schools for the male oligarchs created by Plato and Aristotle. Epicurus was a democrat, and The Garden was open to women, foreigners and slaves. It also was home to an assortment of animals.

Little remains of his work, as his writings were systematically destroyed by Christian authorities. Diogenes Laertius (ca 200 AD) lists many titles. His major work, On Nature, consisted of 37 books (hand written scrols) He also wrote many brief summaries –popular versions.

The best source of his philosophy is seen as the long poem created by the Roman poet, Lucretius, On Nature, dated sometime in the first century BC. There was a broad popular movement in Italy, an Epicurean movement that greatly concerned the Roman ruling class, who were an oligarchy of large land owners whose agriculture was based on slave labour. It is also known that all around the Mediterranean area there were co-operative communities of his followers that existed for hundreds of years until destroyed by Christian Rome.

Epicurean Basic Theory

The universe has always existed as it is today. It consists of matter and void. It is important to recognise that “nothing can be created from nothing.” The universe is infinite: it does not have an edge and has no limit. It consists of matter-- composed of atoms – and the void in which matter moves. Because atoms and space are infinite, a number of worlds like our Earth are likely to exist with similar life.

How can we determine scientific truth? We must depend on our senses: We should not allow abstract reason to override what our senses tell us. All reason depends on our senses; when the senses are in agreement this guarantees their reliability.

Atoms have different qualities of size, mass and shape. They are indestructible. Democratis argued that atoms move downward in the void in a strait line. But Epicurus argued if this were the case human beings would not have free choice. But we see that humans and other animals have free will. Therefore atoms must have the ability to swerve.

Men believe that the celestial bodies are divine, and based on religious myths anticipate eternal suffering after death. To find freedom from such fears we must trust our feelings and sense perceptions. Peace of mind will only come when freed from these myths. We need to look for plausible explanations supported by evidence. We should be satisfied with what is seen to be probable based on our sense perception of facts and evidence. If gods exist, there is no evidence that they are involved in the lives of human beings.

Humans and all animals seek pleasure and try to avoid pain. Humans should seek good health and peace of mind. Seek a simple and plain life. Prudence should be our guide. Self sufficiency should be a goal. Seeking a rich life and sexual love can only bring anxiety. A wise man is one who is happy with little. What is most important is having good friends. Happiness comes to those who are able to put aside religious myths and pursue natural philosophy.

The rules for a just life did not come from religious myths but through utilitarian experience. Natural justice was a product of human beings who made a compact among themselves to prevent injury and to promote mutual well being. There is no such thing as justice in the abstract.

There are four basic rules to follow to relieve human anxiety:

(1)There are no divine beings that pose a threat to human beings.
(2) There is no life after death.
(3) What we need to survive in this life is easy to attain.
(4) The pain we may experience does not last very long.

Religious authorities were shocked by the argument that there was no afterlife. But Epicurus argued that once dead there is no sense perception. We already know what it will be like not to exist: what was it like before we were born?

All living things have a soul. It is the spark of life when life begins and disappears with death. The soul is enclosed in the living body; in human beings and animals it is responsible for sense-perception. When the soul departs with death so does sense-perception.

Medicine in Greece was practiced by materialists  

The Hippocratic Corpus  --Do No Harm

Hippocrates, 460 – 380 BC

It is not surprising that medicine in Greece was developed in Ionia. It is usually identified with Hippocrates of Kos. The Ionian doctors used the five human senses to examine their patients. Their environment was analyzed. They examined what kind of work they did. They compared their patients with others with similar issues. The classic On Ancient Medicine was produced in the fifth century BC, the work of a number of doctors of this school. Hippocrates, seen as the most important and influential of the group, completely rejected the “medicine” practised by the idealists, who claimed illnesses were caused by the Greek gods.

Summary: The Core Values of Greek Democracy

Aristotle and his students studied the constitutions of all the Greek city states that had some form of democracy. He summarized the key features of Greek democracy:

(1) All citizens were to vote in elections and directly participate in the process. All citizens were expected to actively participate in the Assembly.

(2) Any citizen could hold an official office. The preferred method of selection was by lot –not election.

(3) There were no property requirements for holding office.

(4) A citizen should not hold the same office twice (except for the military officers, who were elected).

(5) The terms for holding an office should be short to allow broad participation.

(6) Judicial functions should be exercised by all citizens.

(7) The Assembly should be the final authority on all matters.

(8) There should be payment for all services.

(9) Democracy is the opposite of oligarchy/aristocracy and normally is rule by the common people.


It is not hard to discover that there are very few examples of Greek democracy to be found in the entire world in modern times. A couple of the Swiss Cantons still have Assemblies where citizens make political decisions.

The best example in modern times was the Paris Commune of 1871, which lasted for only two months until it was crushed by the French and German armies. At the time Karl Marx wrote that the Paris Commune form of democracy would be the model of government after the socialist revolution by the working class. But the Greek experiment in democracy also demonstrated that it could exist only as long as it was not destroyed by stronger forces from larger and more powerful anti-democratic countries.

The key principle of democracy is the acceptance of the equal value of all members of a society. Once liberal individualism is introduced and accepted, radical change is inevitable, given the fact that human beings have unequal abilities. Society will move to an unequal hierarchical model, which is the norm today.

Monday, 17 December 2018

Athens Defines Democracy

Democracy Part 4: Aristotle argues that Athens is the best 

example of Greek democracy

Athens prospered under Solon’s reforms. But political conflict continued as the prominent families struggled for power. In 560 BC the citizens, in the Assembly, decided to end the conflict and voted to install Peistratos as tyrant. Three times he was removed from office by the oligarchs. The third time he returned to power with the backing of a mercenary army. He did not reverse Solon’s reforms and helped his power base with state loans paid for by a 10% tax on all farm produce. He died in 527 BC, and was replaced by his sons.
Athens: All citizens attend the Assembly

The reforms of Kleisthenes 508/7 BC

It is widely acknowledged that the reforms instituted by Kleisthenes established Athens as the most important democratic state. How he came to do this is unknown. He was a member of the Alcmaeonid family, notorius for its anti-democratic political behaviour. What role did the demos play? We do not know.

 A new political system

But in an attempt to break the power of the oligarchs and their economic base, Kleisthenes created a political-economic system based on ten new tribes. The three areas of Attica (the city of Athens and its two hinterland areas, the Inland and the Coast), were each divided into ten geographical sections where all citizens were registered. This structure formed the base for his democratic reforms.
A new executive council 

He created a new Council of 500 (Boule), which served as the state executive. Each tribe chose 50 members of the Council, who served for one year; each citizen could only serve twice. The thetes class (those without property) were originally excluded from this process and the Council.

The Assembly

Final political authority (or sovereignty) remained with the Assembly. They met forty times in a year at the Pynx, near the Acropolis, which could hold 6,000 people (the required quorum). Votes were by a show of hands. All who wanted to speak were called to the front platform. No one could speak more than once on an item. This rule was designed to try to restrict the power of the oligarchs, who had demonstrated their ability to sway the commoners.

Democratic Law Courts

The Law Courts created by Solon continued. Each year 6000 citizens were chosen by lot as a pool of jurors. The size of the deciding jurors varied from 200 to a maximum of 500 for important cases. Decisions were made by majority vote and secret ballot. The basic principle of Athenian democracy was the equal worth of all citizens. Democracy required citizens to actively participate. It was deemed that a large and representative jury was less likely to make the wrong decision than a small one.

The Magistrates

State administration was also to be reformed. Each year 600 magistrates were now chosen by lot, forming committees of 10, one from each tribe. No citizen could serve more than once in a lifetime. Certain magistrates were expected to have some expertise: generals, other military commanders, military training instructors, and finance officers. There were official secretaries required, and for these positions  even metics and slaves could be chosen.

There were nine arkhons elected, and they were all from the highest property class. They were primarily involved in important legal matters, but all citizens could appeal their decisions to the general courts.

Finance for Athens came largely from the silver mines which were owned by the state. There was a 2% tax on all goods that came through the main port at Peiraieus. There was an annual poll tax imposed on metics. Property taxes were assessed – mainly to construct fortifications, build warships, and prepare for war.

The general trend in the fifth century was towards expanding democratic reforms. In 487 the Assembly determined that the nine arkhons should be chosen by lot from a list of 500 submitted by the 10 tribes. In 462 the Assembly limited the powers of the Areopagos legal cases and gave the thetes the right to attend and participate in the Assembly. In 451 Pericles introduced payment for jurors, magistrates and members of the Council of 500. In 403 BC payment was expanded to citizens who attended the Assembly.

The oligarchs strongly opposed democracy

Greece at this time was ideologically divided between the oligarchs and the democrats. This is reflected in the writings of Plato and Aristotle and what we know of the political activities of Socrates. They are recognised as the founders of the idealist tradition of political philosophy. The idealist school would include all religions that insist that life was created by a supreme being.

Aristotle noted that the founding principle of democracy is equality. People are chosen for office by lot, and not by experience, property, education or leisure time. Democrats believe all should have a role in governing, and thus individuals would occupy an office for only a short time. All should be paid for their services. All adults are competent to serve on juries. The democratic Assembly, representing all citizens, should be the highest institution of authority.

However, Aristotle argued that once in office the democrats “will unjustly confiscate the property of the wealthy minority.” Taxes will be imposed in order to provide income for those performing government services. Aristotle and the oligarchs argued that there should be requirements for all holding public office; this should include education, experience, birth, leisure time, and property. There should be no payment for public service.

Democracy is “when the indigent, and not men of property, are the rulers,” he argued. The great fear is that the democrats, using lawful authority, “will decide to divide the property of the rich among themselves. “But if this is not injustice, pray what is?" (This was not done in Athens.) We should remember that “almost all tyrants have been demagoges who gained the favour of the people by their accusation of the notables.” To pay salaries to those who hold office, it is necessary to impose property taxes, make confiscations, and use the courts for “corrupt practices.”

The role of ideology: The Idealist school of political philosophy

It will be recalled that Plato strongly supported the official promotion of myths. In what is now known as “The Noble Lie” he argued that all humans are born with certain fundamental characteristics: some are fit to rule (the gold), some are born as natural helpers (the silver) but the great majority are only fit to be producers (iron and brass). This is their nature, and the guardians should not mix them up.

Plato also argued that the common people want to believe the myths of religion. They are afraid of the message being put forth by the Ionian scientists. The common good, the unity of the polis, is only achieved by propaganda, as conflict between the rich and the poor is the norm. In the pursuit of social harmony, Plato argued that rulers have a right to lie to the people. 
Aristotle took the view that the state should actively support the official religion. The common people had absorbed the myths and the stable of gods and goddesses. They were strongly in support of the regular religious celebrations. The support for the Ionian scientists could not have been that strong, as the Assembly expelled the well known astronomer and mathematician, Anaxagorus, in 434 BC, a good friend and associate of Pericles, for failing to support the established religion.

The Role of Competition

The oligarchs were also strong supporters of all forms of competition. We all know that the Greeks created the Olympic Games. But there were many other competitions, even in the literary area. The winners were almost always competitors from the wealthy classes. They did not have to work and had the leisure time to prepare and train.

The results supported the position of the oligarchs -- that only men with training and leisure time should should fill government positions. Furthermore, the competitions demonstrated that in real life there were few winners and a great many losers. The stress on competition was a contradiction to the democratic value of community solidarity and equality.


Saturday, 1 December 2018

Athens Moves Toward Democracy

Democracy Part 3: Aristotle's Polity or the Liberal Order

The period following the Greek “Dark Ages” is known as Archaic Greece, covering between 800 and 480 BC. The absolute kingdoms were gone, replaced by a system of rule by oligarchs whose power rested on large land holdings farmed by commoners.

The landlords ruled through the Council of the Areopagos, As Aristotle pointed out, there was constant conflict between the powerful families, and the rule by tyrants was common.Tyrants came from powerful families and usually had the backing of the majority in the Assembly. Sometimes they seized power with military support from outside Athens.  

At the same time Greece developed a political system based on city states with their colonies. Greece was also unique in having a class of independent family farmers. Many city states created popular assemblies to give voice to this class.

Solon’s reforms of 594 B. C.

There was constant conflict between the powerful oligarchs who also faced class struggle with the hoplites and tenant farmers. This led the oligarchs to seek a political solution. They chose Solon, an aristocrat, but not a wealthy landlord, to be a special arkhon. He was to propose both political and economic reforms. The Areopagos guaranteed that they would accept his reforms for ten years.

The economic reforms were far reaching:

(1) Debts could not be cancelled through personal slavery;
(2) land held by tenants could not be seized to pay for debt; and
(3) all mortgaged land was returned and existing mortgages were cancelled. These reforms constituted a major financial loss for the large land owners.

Political reforms:

In an effort to reduce political strife, Solon created four property classes for Athens:
(1) At the top were the largest land owners who on their estates produced enough food and drink for about fifteen families.
(2) The second class were landlords who served as cavalry men when there were wars.
(3) The “yoke men” were the farmer hoplites who in the army were paired in a phalanx of the infantry formation.
(4) At the bottom were the thetes, who were hired labour or serfs with little land or other assets. Greek scholars have estimated that this class represented around 50% of the citizens of Athens.

Political institutions:

The arkhon system was kept as a privileged executive institution A new Council of 400 was created, to be chosen by each of the four historic tribes, 100 each, chosen from from the top three property classes. It oversaw state administration and acted as the executive of the Assembly, which was reformed and opened to the fourth class. But it had limited powers.

The court system was the most democratic institution, as members of all four property classes
could serve as jurors, and all citizens could challenge administrative decisions.

Aristotle: Solon created “polity” or “constitutional government.”

Aristotle, seen as the first political scientist, has had great influence among the ruling classes in Europe and North America. Like Plato, he was from the class of landed oligarchs and owned slaves. Both described democracy as “the worst form of government.” Plato preferred an absolute monarch who would be the “philosopher king,” and who would rule for the overall benefit of the state.

Aristotle argued that the best possible government would be one where a class of farmer property owners would rule. He argued that democracy always resulted in a government where the poor ruled for the poor, where equality was the dominant value, and “justice was the will of the majority.” Therefore, “it would be unreasonable to give the highest offices to the Many.”

Aristotle argued that political governors should consist of “men who are equal, or nearly so, in wealth, in birth, in moral and intellectual excellence.” The middle class of farmers with property should dominate the government. He called this “polity.” Tyranny was generally rule by an oligarch who was supported, often elected, by "pandering to the mob."

Aristotle believed that many persons are born to be slaves and should have no voice in public affairs. Athens was right to restrict citizenship to those who were the children of native citizens. Women, he argued, who are “biologically inferior to men,” should have no role in public affairs. Foreigners (metics) could not become citizens nor own property. Slaves had no political rights.

The role of religion and festivals.

Greece and Athens were known for their religious cults and festivals. Many  of these emerged with the agrarian economy, as Greeks hoped  various gods would protect against bad weather, plagues and hostile populations. Every month there were major festivals and competitions. Athens benefited by hosting a number of major all-Greek festivals. These events, including political meetings, always began with the sacrifice of animals and purification ceremonies. Festivals included major parades where social groups walked wearing particular costumes. Oracles were consulted before undertaking any military operation. It is not surprising that those who questioned this tradition were often charged with impiety.


Aristotle. 2000. Politics. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Mineola, N. Y. : Dover Publications.

Casey, Christopher. 2017. Democracy in Classical Greece. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Dillon, Mathew and Lynda Garland. 2013. The Ancient Greeks. New York: Routledge.

Flannery, Kent and Joyce Marcus. 2012. The Creation of Inequality. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Geer, Russel M., ed. 1964. Epicurus: Letters, Principal Doctrines and Vatican Sayings. New York:
Bobbs-Merrill Press.

Gouldner, Alvin. 1969. The Hellenic World: A Sociological Analysis. N. Y.: Harper & Row.

Hanson, Victor D. 1999. The Other Greeks. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Inwood, Brad. 1994. The Epicurus Reader. Indianapolis: Hacket Publishing.

Johnson, Allen W. and Timothy K. Earle. 2000. The Evolution of Human Societies. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

Littman, Robert J. 1974. The Greek Experiment. London: Thames and Hudson.

Milanovic, Branko et al. 2011. “Pre-Industrial Inequality.” Economic Journal, Vol. 121, pp. 255 – 272.

Raaflaub, Kurt A. et al. 2007. Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ste. Croix, G. E. M. de. 1981. Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World. Ithaca, N. Y. : Cornell
University Press.

Sinclair, R. K. 1988. Democracy and Participation in Athens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sterling, Richard W. 1974. Plato’s Republic. Indianapolis: Hacket Publishing.

Thorley. John 2004. Athenian Democracy. New York: Routledge.

Wood, Ellen M. 1989. Peasant – Citizen & Slave: The Foundations of Athenian Democracy. London: Verso.

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Greece: Early Human History

Part II: The Rise of Inequality as Humans Move to Greece

For over a million years homo sapiens and proto-humans lived in band societies, hunter-gatherer or foraging societies, which were quite small, usually between 20 and 50 individuals. These were egalitarian societies where everyone was guaranteed food, clothing and shelter. Sharing was the norm. There is little evidence that they were in conflict with other similar human groups.

There was a social division of labour, with males, usually the larger and stronger of the sexes, assuming the role of hunters and women gathering plants and small animals. This was a practical division of labour as women nursed children for a number of years. Plant food, gathered by women, provided perhaps 80% of the food consumed.

Given how long this lasted, one could argue that this social organization would seem to be the natural human social, economic and political system: an egalitarian, sharing society, based on the principle of social equality, the moral right of all to live a life as a valued member of their community.

In many areas around the world these communities moved to “horticultural societies” often employing slash-and-burn or swidden agriculture. These remained egalitarian, small societies with shifting residences.

The Development of Inequality 

Library at Ephesus, Ionia

The evolution to a society based on hierarchy, inequality and war first developed in Mesopotamia, the fertile crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the near East, beginning around 11,500 years ago. As population increased, hunting wild animals could no longer provide adequate food. Humans (mainly women) began to collect wild seeds, and through careful plant breeding developed wheat, barley and legumes. Humans (mainly men) also began to domesticate animals: first dog and then pig, boar, and turkey, ca 10,000 years ago. Sheep, goats and cattle followed. Horses were domesticated around 6,000 years ago, as well as the donkey and the camel.

Agriculture was enhanced as these river societies developed canals and irrigation.The introduction of oxen, the plow and the wheel, is first seen in Sumer around 3500 B.C.

The neolithic revolution, the introduction of plow agriculture with oxen, resulted in a significant increase in food and population. This permitted the development of private household stores of food, followed by private ownership of land and the division of society on the basis of social class. A bureaucratic state was created around the control of irrigation. Farming done by slaves was introduced.The dominant class of land owners also extracted rent from small farmers, using various forms of share cropping.

Mesopotamia is also known for the development of the city, the state, and the first imperial wars. It is here that we find the development of organized religion as a state function designed to help control the lower classes. The priestly class was at the top of the social pyramid and lived in temples supported by taxes imposed on society. Myths were created claiming that there was life after death. It was claimed that the priests could decide who would survive in the after world.

Homo Sapiens move from the fertile crescent to Greece    

Erecthion of the Ionian League

New archeological evidence suggests that human beings began to move from Africa into Europe as early as 200,000 years ago. It is well established that around 35,000 years ago, during the Mesolithic era, peoples from the middle east migrated through Asia Minor to the Balkans, a region which was only mildly impacted by the last ice age.

Migration with farming and domestication of animals also moved north by hopping from Crete to the other islands of the Agean Sea and along the coast of Asia Minor to the Black Sea, Thrace and then Macedonia. Farming developed in mainland Greece between 7,000 and 6500 BC. The Bronze Age for Greece covers the civilizations for Crete, the Cyclades and the mainland between 3600 BC and 2000 BC. Ruins include palaces, large villas, houses, fortifications, temples, shrines, roads and bridges. Crafts included furniture, vessels, carvings, metal work, metal weapons, tools and jewelry. There are some clay tablets from Crete.

Mycenaean Greece and the development of classic, hierarchical civilization

The last period of the Bronze Age covers Greece between 1600 and 1100 BC. Agriculture was based on large estates, a landed aristocracy, with work performed by slaves and serfs. Small farmers also had to pay state taxes.

The political structure was centred around a hereditary king who was the head of the religious order, in direct charge of state administration, and the active head of the military order. He was assisted by an elite group of administrators. The king also controlled many businesses and much of the lucrative trade.

The Mycenaean era began to collapse around 1200 BC. This has been attributed to the invasion from the north by the Dorions, the rise of the Sea Peoples from the south, as well as radical changes in the climate.

The Dark Ages: Greece between 1100 and 800 BC          

With the collapse of the Mycenaen civilization, kingdoms and formal aristocracies disappeared, but farming continued with a new social structure. People lived in small communities surrounded by farmland that was distributed on a family basis. However, the political system was dominated by a group of large landowners, who constituted  a powerful political oligarchy.

There were a number of major developments during this period. Most important was a shift of a significant population from the Greek mainland to the Agean coast of Asia Minor. They occupied the many islands and then the coastal regions. These Greeks merged with the local Asiatics. This area of Greece became known as Ionia.

Iron and steel were invented. The Greek alphabet was created, which facilitated the spread of literacy. There was the beginning of science, which challenged the ideological dominant religions, and the beginning of materialist philosophy. Hippocrates and others introduced scientific medicine, which also challenged the established religious order.

In Ionia there was the development of the city-state and the creation of a new system of laws, not based on religious dogma but utilitarian community needs. A dozen of the most prosperous towns formed a political confederation. In addition these Ionian population centres created many colonies from the Black Sea to Italy and Spain.

A New Political Culture Emerges         

The era of the monarchy and a formal landed aristocracy ends by 700 BC. Communities were based on small subsistence farms, but political rule was by an oligarchy of large land owners. Most of the smaller farms were tenant farms dependent on borrowing from the large farmers. The norm was for the tenant farmers to surrender 1/6 of the farm’s product to the landlord. If they could not pay the rent, they surrendered their land. Farmers and their families could be sold as slaves.

There was also a “middle class” of independent farmers who owned their own land. With the development of iron and steel weapons, this class formed the basis of a new armed force. They became known as the hoplites, after the military infantry formation used very successfully in warfare. The dominant oligarchs commanded horses and chariots. There was a popular assembly at this time, but it had no power. Money was introduced around 700 BC, which allowed farmers, merchants and artisans to accumulate wealth outside land.

 Formal political rule was  vested in  the Council of Areopagos. The landed oligarchs  appointed the arkhons who comprised this institution and who served for life. Originally there were three arkons; six were added in the 7th century. They ruled with unchallenged authority. 


Aristotle. 2000. Politics. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Mineola, N. Y. : Dover Publications.

Casey, Christopher. 2017. Democracy in Classical Greece. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Dillon, Mathew and Lynda Garland. 2013. The Ancient Greeks. New York: Routledge.

Flannery, Kent and Joyce Marcus. 2012. The Creation of Inequality. Boston: Harvard University Press. 
Geer, Russel M., ed. 1964. Epicurus: Letters, Principal Doctrines and Vatican Sayings. New York: Bobbs-Merrill Press.

Gouldner, Alvin. 1969. The Hellenic World: A Sociological Analysis. N. Y.: Harper & Row.

Hanson, Victor D. 1999. The Other Greeks. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Inwood, Brad. 1994. The Epicurus Reader. Indianapolis: Hacket Publishing.

Johnson, Allen W. and Timothy K. Earle. 2000. The Evolution of Human Societies. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

Littman, Robert J. 1974. The Greek Experiment. London: Thames and Hudson.

Milanovic, Branko et al. 2011. “Pre-Industrial Inequality.” Economic Journal, Vol. 121, pp. 255 – 272.

Raaflaub, Kurt A. et al. 2007. Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ste. Croix, G. E. M. de. 1981. Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World. Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell  
University Press.

Sinclair, R. K. 1988. Democracy and Participation in Athens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
Sterling, Richard W. 1974. Plato’s Republic. Indianapolis: Hacket Publishing.

Thorley. John 2004. Athenian Democracy. New York: Routledge.

Wood, Ellen M. 1989. Peasant – Citizen & Slave: The Foundations of Athenian Democracy. London: Verso.


Saturday, 24 November 2018

What Happened to Democracy?

Part I : Modern Democracy Began in Classic Greece

* In 2003 around the world millions march in opposition to a war against Iraq. Public opinion polls show majorities everywhere oppose a war. But the US government and its allies launch a war anyway.

* Citizens in Regina who question whether the city government should use tax money to build a new football stadium ask for a public referendum. The city says no. “They may do this in the USA, but this is Canada!”

* A major public opinion poll in 2006 finds that 65% of Canadians see climate change as the most important political issue. Yet the federal government takes only limited action and then endorses new pipelines to export Alberta Tar Sands bitumen.

* A public opinion poll sponsored by the Toronto Star finds that 94% of Canadians think governments should take actions against corporations and individuals who use offshore tax shelters to avoid paying taxes. But nothing happens.

* Polls show a majority of Canadians are concerned about the steady growth of income and wealth inequality and the capture of new wealth and income by the richest 10%. Yet no government in Canada is willing to take action to begin to redress the problem.

* A Nanos poll finds that 64% of Canadians do not want the government to provide military equipment to Saudi Arabia. The Trudeau government keeps selling weapons to its political ally, the feudal government, as it steps up its war to kill all the Shia Muslims in  Yemen.

What is going on?

The Pynx where the Athenian Assembly met

We live in a country which supposedly is a democracy. Yet the majority of citizens regularly find that they have no influence on government policy. But isn’t democracy supposed to be a political system where the majority of the citizens determine policy? Why is this happening?

I think that if we asked people to define democracy they would most likely say that a country has a democratic form of government if it has regularly scheduled elections and the majority of voters have the power to change who runs the government. Many Canadians would likely add that a democracy should also have a constitution which guarantees liberal, civil and human rights. No government should have unlimited power over its citizens.

Canada, the United States and many other countries had a liberal form of government well before they had a democracy, where all citizens had the right to vote and hold political office. Slaves were not citizens Nor were women. Indigenous Canadians, Canada’s first peoples, did not get citizenship rights until 1956. Non-white immigrants from Asia were denied full citizenship rights for many years.

We should remember: in both Canada and the United States men were denied the right to vote and hold office unless they held a required amount of real property. The Founding Fathers in both countries, who drafted the constitutions, were very clear on this key issue: they were creating a liberal government and not a democracy. There would be no universal suffrage! The role of government was to protect the rights of property owners. As the  famous liberal,  John Locke argued, the government should be run by men with property.

Greek Democracy Fifth Century BC

The Origin of Democracy
It is widely recognized that democracy, as a modern system of government, had its origin in classic Greece. The peak period of this success was in Athens in the fifth century BC. As we know from the writings of Aristotle and the research done by him and his students at the Lyceum, there were many city states in Greece and its colonies that had some form of democracy. At the same time there were no other human communities in the world which had a modern political system which could be called a democracy. And of all examples of Greek democracy, Athens was the best.

It should be noted that at this time the political system of Greek communities was nothing like our current system of territorial states. There were many Greek city states, but no territorial states as we know them today. The city states typically included an urban centre, a surrounding rural area of farmland and local towns, as well as colonies, which stretched from Sicily across the Agean Sea to Persia and the Black Sea. Athens and the other similar political formations had not yet developed a bureaucratic state structure with a professional army, police, a penal system and a civil service. Those  urban formations were found in Mesopotamia, societies with kings and landed aristocracies.

The Greeks gave us the very term “democracy”--demos, the people, and kratein, to rule. Aristotle defined democracy as “the rule of the poor.” He wrote in Politics that extreme democracy, which he defined as the rule of the poor for the poor was “bad government.” “It would be unreasonable,” he wrote, “to give the highest offices to the Many.” Both Aristotle and his teacher Plato declared democracy to be “the worst form of government.” 

NOTE: This is the first part of a longer paper looking at the origin of democracy as a political system and why it is not found today among our political states. The rest of the paper will appear on this blog site over the next few weeks.